For thousands of years the folk of Great Britain have learned to live with the challenges and opportunities brought by the winds and the waves surrounding our island. “Time and tide wait for no man” says the old German proverb. Historical legend tells the tale of an arrogant king demonstrating he was mightier than God by attempting to hold back the tide by loudly demanding it on his throne at the water’s edge. In Chichester harbour in Sussex it is more likely that the Danish born King Cnut who became the English king in 1016 was proclaiming to all his subjects how the waves were far stronger than any man, even the king. (1)
Coastal erosion is a natural process that has been accelerated over the last few decades. Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere from around the globe are causing climate change. Rising temperatures which “causes sea waters to expand and melts glaciers.” mean rising water levels in the world’s seas. The result is larger tides, which are often combined with more frequent extreme weather events. (2)
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rt Hon George Eustice has stated that “flooding and coastal erosion can have devastating impacts and cause significant harm and disruption” to infrastructure, properties, health, wellbeing, land and natural habitats. (3)
It is a fact of nature that our cliff and beach areas often become eroded by the sea over many years. In addition climate change means warmer temperatures and hotter summers particularly on the south and east coasts. Increased precipitation is also caused by global warming which can lead to increased flooding. More extreme weather is expected to bring heavier rainfall across the country. In addition increased snowfall is predicted to affect the Midlands and northern parts of the UK in the future.
Anyone who has visited or sailed on the waters around the south coast of the UK knows that strong south westerly winds can produce large powerful waves that can be destructive to England’s fantastic natural coastline. (4)
Cliffs become weathered and month by month relentless waves can cause material to break off and fall away. Soft clay is particularly susceptible to becoming eroded over time. (4)
“Climate change and rising sea levels are likely to have a severe impact on the UK coast by 2080. The total rise in sea levels off the UK coast may exceed one metre and could potentially reach two metres.” warned the Joseph Rowntree foundation in their report in 2011. (5)
In the Rowntree report Amalia Fernandez-Bilbao outlined the threat to disadvantaged towns. Amalia describes the problems often faced by coastal locations which encompass several socio-economic factors like seasonal working, low wages, youth outmigration, aging populations, poor quality housing and lack of financial investment which can make it especially hard to cope if the residents homes or land becomes damaged. Fernandez-Bilbao proposes that those living in and around some of the least wealthy seaside places can struggle to cope. Working families and retired people often find it impossible to obtain the resources needed to take the damage from flooding, storms and land erosion, in their stride. (5)
The Joseph Rowntree report concluded that climate change adaptation plans are critical for any community that may be affected by coastal erosion. These can include “long-term development and infrastructure planning” as well as allocating enough resources from regional and central government funds. (5)
Last January in an article in The Guardian Josh Halliday explained how rising sea levels on the coastline between Bridlington and Withernsea in Yorkshire have become the fastest eroding in northern Europe. Halliday described how The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) now “provides up to £6000 in retrospective funding” but suggests that this grant is not nearly enough to help those who have been forced to demolish their homes after erosion caused them to become uninhabitable. (6)
“Houses, businesses, roads, railways, train stations, power stations, landfill sites and farmland will all be affected by increased coastal flooding or erosion” explains Professor Jim Hall at the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) who agrees that water level rises of 1 meter can be expected by the next generation in their lifetime. The CCC also points out that a large proportion of sea defenses are ‘Victorian’ or over 100 years old and therefore need replacing or upgrading as soon as possible, as they are well past their original planned lifespans. (2)
There are many stakeholders involved in agreeing local plans for investing in, preserving and strengthening coastal defenses in the United Kingdom. These interested parties include Defra, local authorities, residents, the Environment Agency, utilities companies, insurance companies, environmental groups, the National Trust and other land owning organisations.
It is essential for the well being, economic opportunities and practical living of the millions of people who could be potentially affected by coastal erosion that our coastline is managed and cared for consistently and to the highest standards. We need innovative sea defense improvements and robust construction that will last successfully for generations in the future.
For more insight on what is currently being done to effectively meet this climate related challenge see our next article How Coastal Erosion in the UK Can Massively Stress Struggling Communities
(1) ‘Canute – and that Tale of the Tide’ English Historical Fiction Authors, Helen Hollick 6 June 2016 ‘Canute – and that Tale of the Tide’ English Historical Fiction Authors, Helen Hollick
(2) ‘Managing the coast in a changing climate’ Committee on Climate Change, October 2018 ‘Managing the coast in a changing climate’ Committee on Climate Change
(3) ‘Flood and Coastal erosion risk management policy statement’ HM Government policy July 2020 ‘Flood and Coastal erosion risk management policy statement’ HM Gov
(4) ‘Coastal processes’ GCSE Geography, BBC Bitesize, 10 May 2021 ‘Coastal processes’ GCSE Geography, BBC Bitesize
(5) ‘Impacts of climate change on disadvantaged UK coastal communities’ Amalia Fernandez-Bilbao, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 6 March 2011 ‘Impacts of climate change on disadvantaged UK coastal communities’ Amalia Fernandez-Bilbao, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
(6) ‘Treat coastal erosion as a natural catastrophe, UK ministers urged’ Josh Halliday, North of England correspondent, 19 January 2020 ‘Treat coastal erosion as a natural catastrophe, UK ministers urged’ Josh Halliday, The Guardian
(7) ‘What is coastal erosion?’ Internet Geography, 10 May 2021 ‘What is coastal erosion?’ Internet Geography